“Powiats & Wolas & Gróds, Oh My!”

by William F. Hoffman

Polish-Americans trying to trace their roots are often reduced to shaking their heads and moaning “Why can’t these guys just speak English?” As a linguist, of course, I find this attitude rather narrow-minded—what would translators like me do if everybody spoke English? Yet I must admit I understand the feeling. Even the simplest records seem infested with terms that either don’t appear in dictionaries, or, if they do, have definitions that leave you scratching your head and saying “Huh?”

Some of the worst offenders appear when you try to decipher something as simple and obvious as the name of the place your ancestor came from. Again and again you run into terms such as okrąg and ziemia and obwód and gmina. With commendable zeal you turn to a dictionary; but when you discover that they all seem to mean “district” in English—well, it is enough to make you forsake genealogy and take up something less painful, perhaps bee-keeping or body-piercing.

To be fair, Polish is no worse than any other language in this regard. Imagine trying to explain to a Pole what a “shire” is, why hillbillies live in a “holler,” or why in Louisiana a county isn’t a county, it’s a parish…

The problem is, languages are not created from scratch by precise, logical scientists determined to make each word concise and unambiguous. They develop “on the run,” as people come up with terms that serve as verbal shorthand for the political, geographical, economic, legal and cultural circumstances of their daily lives. Since those circumstances vary from one place to the next, it’s understandable that the terms for them don’t always translate easily.

Civil Administrative Divisions: Forty Words That All Mean “District”

It’s not too difficult to get a handle on the terms for the largest administrative divisions, such as województwo, “province”—any decent map shows the provinces, and functionally they equate reasonably well to our states. In ancient times a województwo was the territory ruled by a wojewoda, literally “war-leader” often rendered with the Latin termpalatinus (thus we also see palatinatus for województwo). Once you have encountered the term for the same thing used by the Russian Empire (gubernia), or the German terms Land or Provinz, it’s not difficult to keep them straight. But what, is, say, a powiat?

The short answer is, a powiat was much like our “county.” And they will be again — the powiaty, abolished in 1975, are being restored as part of an administrative reform, effective at the beginning of 1999. (But of course they will not have the same borders they had before 1975; they’ve been redrawn from scratch — surely you didn’t expect otherwise? You can find a map that shows the new powiaty at http://www.mapapolski.com.pl/; just click on a specific province to get a map showing its individual powiaty.

At any rate, the powiaty are the units into which the województwawere/will be subdivided, much as our states consist of counties. But this answer is too simple; if you really want to understand what role thepowiat plays in the scheme of things, Bronisław Chlebowski provided a good explanation of this in the article he wrote for the entry “Powiat” in the late-19th-century gazetteer Słownik geograficzny Królestwa Polskiego i innych krajów słowiańskich. I believe it’s worth translating and quoting in its entirety.

Powiat: in [Latin] documents also districtus, regio, an administrative region encompassing a certain number of administrative units known as gmina’s. Both in the Kingdom of Poland and in adjacent provinces this division is primarily of administrative and political significance. Other districts [okręgi]of greater or smaller size (judicial, educational, electoral) have been created in relation to other functions of governmental life, but they are usually based on powiat divisions.

In our past the powiat originally appeared as a judicial district, concentrating in itself the interests of the landed class, which was, naturally, noble. The ancient divisions of the country into ziemie[plural of ziemia, “land, district”] had been based on certain natural boundaries which separated and protected them, but often also on communality of the distinct physical features of a given territory (Kujawy, Łeęczyca, Podlasie), with which certain features of living conditions, as well as economic, social, and often also political relations, were connected. When the union of a certain number of ziemie gave rise to a central princely authority—primarily a military and judicial authority—along with the organs of that authority there had to come about a division of the land into regions, called “castellanies,” since that organization’s main purpose was to keep the border gród’s [fortified military camps] in good defensive condition. The centers of these regions, the gród’s, were situated mostly along the ziemia borders and especially national borders, so this division was not advantageous for administrative purposes.

As the royal authority lost its original character as a source of military leadership, there appeared on the one hand thestarosta’s, as administrators of royal estates and representatives of the police and judicial authority, and on the other hand thesądy ziemskie [courts of law deciding disputes between nobles as well as between nobles and commoners], as an expression of the state and region’s emancipation from the authority of the princes.

With the development of manorial farmsteads came growth in material wealth, and the szlachta [nobility] began to develop political ambitions. The old princely institutions, their representatives, and the administrative divisions associated with them lost significance to the developing interests and institutions of the szlachta—which, in view of the increased population, required new divisions with new centers. The powiaty, the centers of which are towns concentrating the varied affairs of the landowners, suited these ambitions and needs. Some of the old castellan gród’s disappeared as they lost significance, others became the nuclei of urban settlements and centers of political life of the powiaty. The old ziemie were divided into powiaty.

The new division was not based on a law regulating judicial, political and administrative relationships for the whole country, but rather sprang up slowly on the basis of the conditions ofszlachta life. The ziemia courts, originating in the 14th century, increased in relationship to the growth of the nobles’ possessions, which required the creation of smaller districts. For administrative purposes (the collection of taxes) the division into powiaty, along with the ecclesiastic divisions (parishes), served as a basis.

The most important factor, however, which gave the powiat the character of an autonomous part of the governmental organism, was the development of sejmiki [regional councils, as contrasted with the national Sejm or congress] in the 16th century. Both political life and the institutions and divisions connected with it sprang up first in Małopolska [Little Poland, roughly the southeastern part of modern Poland] and Wielkopolska [Great Poland, roughly the northwestern part of modern Poland] and spread from there to the other provinces.

Just as the gród courts of law continued to exist and function alongside the ziemski courts, similarly the okręgi [districts] did not cease to exist, but rather functioned alongside the powiatyand bore the ancient names of the ziemie. [Bronisław Chlebowski, Vol. 8, pp. 888-889].

Chlebowski has given us a lot of information here. He has told us what apowiat is, what a gmina is basically a smaller, rural administrative unit—and what an okrąg is (plural, okręgi: a district set up for overseeing courts, education, conscription, etc). But, more important, he gives us the context in which these divisions were created.

It is essential to understand that when the history of Poland as an entity began, it was a rather sparsely-settled country, much of it heavily wooded, and most settlements that existed developed within the walls of a fortified military camp known as a gród (this same root appears in Russian place names, e. g., Leningrad, and also as the Russian word for “city,” gorod). The administrative districts of the time were referred to with the term ziemia, and in records dating back to the 14th-15th centuries we often see that institutions such as courts of law were characterized as either ziemski (of a ziemia) or grodzki (of a gród).

But gradually Polish society developed into one divided mainly into two classes. One class was the szlachta or nobles typically armed men on horseback, subject to the summons of their overlords to ride to the defense of the land. For their service they were given ownership of the soil and its produce, so that they could fight as needed without worrying about having to earn a living. But obviously they could not work the land they had to be free to go fight invaders at a moment’s notice. If the nobles were responsible for raising crops, and an enemy invaded, they might fight off the enemy, only to return home to a starving land.

So another class developed, the peasants [włościanie or chrześcijanieor kmiecie], who were bound to the soil owned by the szlachta and did the actual work of farming. Most of Poland’s population fell into one of these two categories; there were craftsmen, townsmen, freedmen, and such, but they were a comparatively small percentage of the population, at least during Poland’s early history.

Eventually the nobles realized that the more of their land peasants were working on, the more wealth would be coming in. So if the nobles owned wooded areas, and had more peasants than were needed to work existing farms, the nobles told some of them to go make clearings in those woods and create new revenue-producing settlements there. This not only increased the nobles’ wealth, it also led to population growth and shifts in where that population was concentrated. The grody andziemie had not been located with such conditions in mind and were not well situated to deal with them; so powiaty arose to meet the need, andgminy developed as subdivisions of the powiat.

In the context of other activities such as running courts of law, schools, conscription boards, etc., the political authorities would set up an okrąg,sometimes called an obwód (both come from words meaning “circuit, circle”). These were created and their jurisdiction defined in terms of their functions, much as in America a school district or water district may be created with no particular correspondence to county lines.

When Poland was partitioned, three different empires took over the administration of the regions they had seized. Often the divisions they created followed the Polish ones fairly closely: the German Kreis usually corresponds reasonably well to the Polish powiat, as does the GermanGemeinde to the Polish gmina. Under the Russian Empire the uyezdfunctioned much as the powiat had, and the gmina differed little from the Polish gmina. Vital records in the Kronland of Galicia—the part of southeastern Poland and western Ukraine seized by Austria—are usually in Latin, and such terms as districtus seldom cause anyone too much trouble.

Of course, nothing’s allowed to be too easy. There are plenty of terms one does encounter in post-partition records that can bewilder you. Still, if you understand the pre-partition set-up in Poland, you stand a better chance of making sense of what has happened since.

Terms Seen in Place Names

So much for terms designating political and administrative divisions. There is another kind of term connected with place names that causes many researchers trouble. Certain words show up again and again in place names, so often that researchers can’t help but realize they meant something specific, and it might be helpful to know exactly what. Terms appearing in the names of many villages and settlements include: Budy, Huta, Kąty, Kolonia, Kuźnica, Łazy, Ligota, Majdan, and Wólka.

At this point another entry written by Bronisław Chlebowski for theSłownik geograficzny becomes helpful: the one on Wola:

Wola, in Latin libera villa, libertas, a name given to agricultural villages, appearing as early as the first half of the 13th century and constituting a separate category of settlements, by comparison to others, in terms of the populace used to settle them and the freedoms they were granted. The need to make use of empty wooded lands belonging to princes, clergy, and knights, along with the growth in numbers of free men, the end of the slave trade, and the decreasing inflow of prisoners of war, brought about the founding of villages with free populace, either Poles or new arrivals from other countries, mainly Germans. These settlers were given plots of land and exemption for a certain number of years (up to 20) from all rents, fees, and taxes, and in most cases separate institutions and charters based on German law. That free villages (Wola’s) existed based on Polish law is attested by the fact of their conversion to German law. Thus, for instance, in 1328 Władysław, Prince of Dobrzyń, conferred Chełmno law on Wola and other villages in Dobrzyń ziemia (Kodeks dypl. pol. II, 658). In 1363 King Kazimierz transferred the villages of Chothow and Wola, property of Krzesław, from Polish law to that of Środa (Kodeks Małop. III, 168)

An important indication as to the populace used to settle these villages is given by a Latin-language document which “Boliziarus dux Polonie” issued in 1255 to the monastery in Ląd: “We have granted [to the monks] the freedom to locate a new free village between the river called Wirbec and their monastery, which is to be called Libera villa and is to be populated by Germans or free Poles with full German law” (Kodeks Wielkop. No. 331, 600). In a document from 1325 that village is called “Wolany alias Villa Gerlaci.” Here we learn that it was founded on land of the village of Dolany and populated by German settlers. It is mentioned in a 1255 document endowing the monastery in Krzyz|anowice: “Volia, which in the vernacular is called Grochovisko” (Kodeks dypl. pol. I, 75). We also encounter this Wola in an act of endowment for the monastery in Zawichost in 1257. In Silesia and adjoining parts of Wielkopolska[Great Poland] and Małopolska [Little Poland] such settlements were called by the name Lgota or Ligota. A document from 1369 mentions a Wola and Ligota near each other, in the vicinity of Z|arnowiec (Kodeks Małop. III, 229)

Wola’s appear most frequently during the 14th century in areas of northern and eastern Małopolska and the eastern borderlands of Wielkopolska, in the 15th century in Mazovia, Podlasie, and Ruś Czerwona, and finally extended as far as Volhynia. The name Wolasometimes disappeared, superseded by the original name of the area, or sometimes it changed its second part along with a change of owner or connection with a nearby settlement. As the differences were gradually erased between free people and those bound to the soil, the name Wolacame to mean a newly founded settlement, and one therefore free from taxes for a certain period, just like Nowa Wieś [which means literally “new village”]. Also used in the same meaning was the name Wólka [a diminutive form, literally a “little wola”]. [Bronisław Chlebowski, Vol. 13, pp. 774-775].

In this passage Chlebowski again comes through with information not only on the meaning of the terms, but also the economic and political situation that caused such names to get started. The nobles’ efforts to augment their income led to the creation of many new villages and settlements, and the names of those places often reflect their origins. Thus Wola, Wólka, Łazy, Ligota, and Nowa Wieś are all names for newly-founded agricultural settlements which were exempt from taxes until they’d had a chance to get off to a good start.

The term Kolonia applied to new settlements formed by subdividing large stretches of land belonging to folwarki [manorial farmsteads]. At one time the kolonie were most often settled by foreigners, especially Germans or Dutch—we see the term olędry, from German Hollander,used for such “colonies.” In records the term kolonista was once applied mainly to those immigrants, but after the abolition of serfdom it came to be used for Polish farmers, too.

Most of the other terms I mentioned—Buda, Huta, Kąty, Kuźnica, andMajdan—involved wooded areas initially settled to generate revenue by producing something other than crops. The ready availability of wood was a key factor in their operation, so clearing the trees first was not necessarily part of the process, as it was in setting up a wola or łazy.Now, centuries later, all the woods may have long since been cleared away and used up, and yet the villages that grew out of these settlements may still bear names from these terms.

Chlebowski does such a good job explaining things, I might as well quote his entries on these terms as well:

Buda, plural Budy [literally “shed”]: a general geo-topographical name for settlements in forests or founded on former wooded areas cleared of trees. Originally buda just meant the residence of a settler in the forest, and in hunters’ terminology a shelter of branches serving to hide the hunter from the prey for which he was lying in wait. When settlements whose inhabitants earned their living from hunting, bee-keeping, distilling pitch, and other such industries, began to be converted into agricultural settlements, they might retain their original name, although the shelters gave way to huts. We find places named Buda most often in the area of ancient Mazovia (the gubernia“s of Warsaw, Płock, and Łomz|a), although we encounter the name all over the lands of ancient Poland, in connection with Mazovian colonization. Compare Ruda, Majdan, Huta, etc. [Vol. 1, p. 439].

Huta: from German Hütte, a structure set up to produce either metal from the appropriate ore, or else glass. The name indicates that German settlers spread this branch of industry among us.Huty were always established in forests, in order to draw income from large wooded areas. In addition to the general name Huta, such a settlement usually bore a second name, from the name of the village on whose grounds it was built, or more rarely from the name of its founder. As a means of exploiting forests the hutarepresents a certain step forward over buildings and majdan’s. Ahucisko is a site on which a dismantled huta once stood. [Vol. 3, p. 229].

Kąty: these are settlements established in woods for the purpose of exploiting them by producing potash, glass, pitch, staves, etc. So they correspond to buda’s, majdan’s, huta’s, kuźnica’s, andłazy’s. [Vol. 3, p. 943].

Kolonia, a name for small settlements created by dividing large areas of manorial farmsteads into smaller sections of a dozen or more mórgs, acquired by peasants or by immigrants from neighboring German provinces. In earlier times this name was also applied to villages consisting of small Dutch or Romanian settlements… Near larger towns these settlements were usually named for their first owners, e. g., near Warsaw [Kolonia] Elsnera, Ewansa, Mintra, Detkensa, etc.; in rural areas they usually are named for the villages on the territory of which they were created.[Vol. 4, p. 267].

Kuźnica, a name for settlements that grew up around factories, much more numerous in the past than they are presently because the cheap price of wood made the existence of small-scale factories feasible. Thus today this name attests only to the existence of factories in places that do not have conditions that allow them to exist in this kind of industry. Compare Kuźnica in the Grand Duchy of Poland. [Vol. 5, p. 11].

Łazy: these were areas of farmland obtained by burning off the bushes and trees covering them; settlements founded on such areas often received this name. [Vol. 5, p. 624].

Majdan: a Turkish expression designating an enclosed four-sided space used as a fairground, a site for military exercises, or a gathering place. In Polish camps the majdan was what they called the open central space where knights gathered to share the booty equally. From this the name came to be used for the campsites of forest workers, who set up their budy in a closed quadrilateral. These campsites often became the beginnings of villages founded in cleared forest areas; the name Majdan could then pass to the village as well. Majdany differ from budy in that they served as gathering point for a larger number of workers, which made it necessary to set up some sort of administrative and judicial authority, whereas budy were usually individual forest settlements. Majdany were founded in order to exploit the wealth contained in the forests by melting down tar, burning coal, etc. They usually took their names from the estates to which the forests belonged. The majdan plays the same role in wooded areas on the right bank of the Wisła up to the Bug and Narew as thehuta plays in areas on the left bank. [Vol. 5, p. 908].

In case you’re wondering just how common these terms are in Polish place names, I did a quick count in the index of the Euro-Atlas Polska, Atlas Drogowy. (Note that in most cases the Słownik geograficzny lists far more places by each name, but I only counted those that bear the names now and are big enough to appear on 1:200,000 maps). There were 88 places bearing the names Buda, Budy, or Budki, or those names plus a second component, e. g., Budy Zaklasztorne (literally, “the sheds on the other side of the monastery”), to say nothing of the 6Nowe Budy’s (“new sheds”). There were 94 Huta’s, 2 Hutka’s, and 5Hutki’s, as well as 46 Kąty’s, and 41 Kuźnica’s. There were 78 Majdan’s, 7 Majdany’s, and 3 Majdanek’s (including the section of Lublin where the Nazis set up a concentration camp). As for the agricultural names, there were 115 places called Nowa Wieś, another 43 with Nowa Wieśplus a third name, 259 Wólka’s, 33 Łazy’s, 35 Ligota’s, 13 Lgota’s, 343Kolonia’s, and almost 400 Wola’s.